Keeping the memory of Beijing's 1989 Tiananmen Massacre alive in Taiwan

A painting by Lumli Lumping exhibited at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek's Memorial to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1989 June 4th massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre of workers and students. The protestors were demanding a more democratic and egalitarian society, and the brutality that followed shook not just Beijing, but the whole of China. Today Taiwan remains the last Chinese-speaking society where people can publically commemorate the event, as Hong Kong has banned any public event related to the incident.

The 1989 events that culminated in the occupation of Tiananmen sure in central Beijing by workers, students, academics, and intellectuals is known as the June 4th (六四 — literally meaning 6.4., as in June 4th) among Sinophone speakers around the globe. Back then, Deng Xiaoping made the decision to crush the pro-democracy movement by sending troops and tanks to quell them, leading to hundreds of deaths. The exact numbers are not known as Beijing imposed a total ban on discussing this day and refuses to acknowledge it used state violence to kill, maim, imprison, and detain its citizens. In China, anyone mentioning 6.4. — including under creatively disguised allusions such as 5.35 (as in, May 35 = June 4th) today in public or on social media are detained, interrogated and can be sent to prison while any online references are immediately deleted and owners of accounts are also investigated, and punished.

Hong Kong was able to maintain large commemoration in Victoria Park until 2020 with large crowds attracting tens of of thousands of people.

For more, read: Hong Kong's June 4 memory battle behind Chow Hang-Tung and her supporters’ arrest

This leaves Taiwan as the last Chinese-speaking country and society able to commemorate June 4th. In Taipei, the event is usually held in front of Chiang Kai-shek's Memorial in the center of the city, where people gather every June 4th for a vigil that includes art performances and live testimonies from participants of the June 4th movement now living in exile. Chinese and global activists keep the memory alive and conduct archival and investigative work about this day to provide evidence of China's use of state violence.

For more, read: Tiananmen commemorations: An inconvenient truth for Beijing, a dire warning for Hong Kong and Taiwan

This year saw about 2,000 people gather in Taipei on the evening of June 4th with a significant presence of Hongkongers — some of whom have moved to Taiwan to seek protection for their political and human rights activism, others who belong to the global overseas Hong Kong community.

An exhibit at the June 4th vigil in Taipei. The numbers refer to June 4th, 1989. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

June 4th is not just a day to honor human rights and freedom of expression, it is also a rare emotional and intellectual space where people who have various identities but all speak Chinese: Hongkongers, mainlanders, Taiwanese, Chinese from Southeast Asia and the global Chinese diaspora find common ground as they share the same values and want to see all Sinophone societies free and democratic.

Global Voices talked to three attendees at the Taipei June 4th vigil.

Loretta Lau is an artist from Hong Kong who practices artivism, and after moving to Prague in 2018, created her non-profit NGO DEI. She tells Global Voices:

To best preserve the memory of the Tiananmen tragedy for future generations among all Sinophone communities, including those in exile and overseas, we must wholeheartedly support Taiwan's democracy.

Taiwan is now the last Sinophone society where we can publicly commemorate this significant, significant event, making it a crucial haven for historical truth and remembrance. Supporting Taiwan's autonomy is essential. If we lose this, we lose our last place to openly speak the true history of the oppressed. This year, when the New School for Democracy asked me to curate the exhibition and guided imagery session, I immediately agreed. I reached out to Hong Kong artists living overseas to join the exhibition.

For many of us, participating in this event is incredibly important. Our art and voices, which can no longer be seen or heard in Hong Kong, found a platform here. Some Hongkongers, despite living just a two-hour flight away, managed to participate last night. This means so much to the Hong Kong diaspora. Making real, personal connections with people still in Hong Kong is invaluable. It shows that even under brutal regimes, people care and remember, even if they can't openly raise their voices. By supporting Taiwan's democracy and fostering these connections, we ensure that the memory of the Tiananmen tragedy lives on and that the voices of the oppressed are heard.

A famous June 4th photo is exhibited at the vigil in Taipei. Organizers allowed people to make offerings of flowers and candles to commemorate the event. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

For more, read: From Hong Kong to Central Europe and back: Interview with Prague-based activist Loretta Lau

Another important figure who co-moderated the event is Kacey Wong (黃國才), a contemporary artist from Hong Kong who moved permanently to Taiwan in 2021 and a major player in protest. Wong spoke in Cantonese, to honor the presence of many Hongkongers a the event, some wearing masks to protect their identity, even in Taiwan. Wong shares his views with Global Voices:

I think the best way to interpret 1989 June 4th massacre is to understand it didn’t end on the date of June 4, but to understand it as it is still ongoing. In 1989 a lot of innocent people yearning for freedom and democracy were brutally murdered by CCP authoritarian government. The CCP continues to suppressed other places such as first Tibet, then East Turkestan, Hong Kong and now moving to Taiwan. The mature way to understand the geo political situation is to realise this is a war of freedom and democracy versus authoritarian terror. Instead of minding our own business and burying our heads into the sand, blindly pretending it will not come to our land if we behave, is to realise this is a war between David and Goliath of the East, except there will be lots of Davids in this case, and together we will win.

For more, read: Hong Kong artist in exile in Taiwan uses protest art to resist Beijing's attacks on freedom in the region

Another journalist and public intellectual present is Vivian Wu (吳薇), a veteran editor with 20 years of experience working at the BBC, South China Morning Post, Inititum (端傳媒) and who recently founded an independent global Sinophone media platform,  Dasheng Media (大聲) in New-York where she is based. She says: 

It's emotional to see Taiwan become the last place where overseas Chinese can openly chant for democracy, commemorate June 4th, and come together to discuss their pains and bitter memories. Having covered the Victoria Park vigil in Hong Kong for years, it's disheartening to know that such commemorations are now criminalized there after the national security law was enacted. Joint memory is formed through open and honest dialogue, something the Chinese people deeply lack. Taiwan has its own agenda on every social issue, and I'm glad to see it becoming a more steadfast fortress that safeguards values like democracy, humanitarianism, and freedom.

In this YouTube series (English subtitles are available), she interviews Wu Renhua (吴仁华), a key speaker for and researcher of June 4th memory, who was also present in Taipei at the event:

C.-J. Anderson-Wu, a poet, translator, and editor from Taiwan who also wrote a collection of short stories on Taiwan's own dictatorship years called The White Terror, gives a short answer:


The poem she wrote in English, ​”There Is No Illegal Vigil, includes the following lines:

No one is free to express
even lighting a candle for the deceased
even trying to remind the authorities that
June Fourth is still on the calendar every year

I plead not guilty because I guard the memory
I have no intention to subvert your power
If your power is shaken by what people
are still able to remember
it is your fault, not my guilt

For more about her work, read also The task of achieving transitional justice in Taiwan remains unfinished': Interview with writer C.J. Anderson-Wu. 

Here is another art piece exhibited at the Chiang Kai-shek's Memorial

Photo of painting by Missy Hyper commemorating June 4th at Chiang Kai-shek's memorial in Taipei. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

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